Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Sakina Itoo used to motivate Kashmiris to believe that India would be better for their future. But the 48-year-old pro-India politician says New Delhi’s decision to strip the Muslim-majority region’s autonomy last August has made her lose face and vulnerable.
“We don’t know how to go to people again. We have no answers ourselves, what will we tell them,” Itoo, a former minister in the regional government, told Al Jazeera.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government also suspended the regional assembly and downgraded India’s only Muslim-majority region to a federally-administered territory in a move that critics say has snatched away the democratic rights of the people.
The government justified the move, saying it will bring development to the region, which has witnessed an armed rebellion against Indian rule since the late 1980s.
In our own homes, we were told we can't go out. While we were the people who advocated for democracy.
Local politicians who contested elections and remained affiliated with parties loyal to New Delhi have faced numerous attacks and threats from rebels.
Itoo joined politics after her father, a pro-India politician, was killed by rebels in 1996. Since becoming a member of the Kashmir assembly in 1996, Itoo has survived several attacks on her life.
Last April, a grenade was tossed into her home in Kulgam, a district in southern Kashmir region – a stronghold of rebels who have been fighting for either independence or a merger with neighbouring Pakistan.
Loyal to New Delhi
Itoo’s party, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, was the most dominant political party in the region which had remained loyal to New Delhi, but its top leadership including members of its powerhouse Abdullah dynasty were detained last year.
The region was placed under an unprecedented security and communications lockdown last August. The internet was revived earlier this year but with slow speed.
The scars on the National Conference and other political parties are now deep-rooted as they struggle to fit into the new territorial and political reality of Kashmir.
“We would always talk and motivate people that India is best for us and it is our country,” Itoo said. “The youth is not ready to listen now,” she said.
Feeling abandoned and vulnerable, many of their members have fallen silent and disappeared from public life as they face threats from rebels.
“I have painful memories,” Itoo said, referring to the attempts on her rallies and workers. “Earlier militants would attack but we had support from the government but now we are stuck in between,” she said.
For the last 30 years, as armed rebellion waxed and waned in Kashmir, pro-India politicians were accorded state security and perks in exchange for loyalty to New Delhi.
There is no space and every political process has been blocked. There is no road ahead.
Waheed Para from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which produced the region’s last two chief ministers, believes that the militaristic steps New Delhi took on August 5, 2019 and in its aftermath are not a solution for Kashmir. PDP leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has been imprisoned for more than a year now.
Kashmir conflict goes back to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Pakistan – a homeland for Muslims.
But things got complicated as the then Muslim-majority region’s Hindu king chose to accede the region with India but with certain conditions, which were enshrined in the Indian constitution’s Article 370.
“Kashmir was a problem before August 5 and it continues to be so,” Para, 30, told Al Jazeera.
“Our disappointment and regret is that we promised things to people which [have been] taken away. We promised constitutional spaces to the youth of Kashmir, we promised a solution within the (Indian) constitution and these were not only challenged by people or militants but by the government itself.”
Para said pro-India parties paid a “huge cost” as thousands of cadres were killed by rebels. “Suddenly, we are being told that this space doesn’t exist,” he said.
The young leader was among hundreds of other politicians thrown in jail following the government’s decision to scrap Article 370 that gave a measure of autonomy to the region.
“In our own homes, we were told we can’t go out … while we were the people who advocated for democracy,” Para said.
Political structure changed
Several pro-India politicians Al Jazeera spoke to have expressed shock and accused New Delhi of betrayal.
We would always talk and motivate people that India is best for us and it is our country.
Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami is an old hand in Kashmir’s politics. A member of a communist party, he has been elected a politician from south Kashmir’s Kulgam constituency in every election since 1996.
Tarigami said New Delhi removed “the line” that separated pro-Indian politicians in Kashmir from the resistance leaders who advocated freedom for the disputed region.
“We are all in the same line now. There is no division. Now, all people are in the same jail, be it terrorists, separatists, mainstream,” he said.
Tarigami describes the situation as unprecedented and says that Kashmir has been turned into a “prison” in which “all shades of opinion” are detained.
“There is no space and every political process has been blocked. There is no road ahead,” he said.
Aijaz Ashraf Wani, a political analyst based in Kashmir, told Al Jazeera that “the politics in Kashmir has always remained very guided and controlled” and followed a “broader framework” set up by New Delhi.
“It was under this framework in which the Kashmir political parties were supposed to operate. After 1947 the main concern was to bring Kashmir closer to India and that was guided by the concern of national security and national integration,” he said.
“After August 5, it was not only the status of Kashmir that was changed but it also in a way tried to change the whole political structure,” he said.
What have they done for people? They only worked to uplift themselves.
“We witnessed that they [New Delhi] were neither concerned nor bothered about the local political parties. They showed that they can do it without them and they even wanted to do away with them,” he said.
Wani’s assessment of a controlled political structure existing in Kashmir has resonated with the larger populace, which has shown little faith in the democratic process. And that has reflected in low voter turnout in elections.
Last October, just over four percent of people came out to vote in the elections for local councils. Most pro-India parties had boycotted the elections.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency witnessed a turnout of just 8.75 percent; 14.8 percent and 35 percent came out to vote in Srinagar and Baramulla respectively.
By comparison, the two constituencies in the Hindu-majority Jammu region witnessed a more than 70 percent turnout.
On Tuesday, India said it “revived grassroots democracy” in the region after UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet criticised New Delhi for severely restricting the space for political debate and public participation.
Many Kashmiris Al Jazeera spoke to showed little sympathy over the marginalisation of pro-India politicians.
“Whatever happened after August 5, it is only politicians who are crying but for common Kashmiris it is always the same, always the change in the intensity of oppression,” said Danish Ahmad.
“These are the same politicians who did injustice to us for all these years. I have never had any hope from them,” said the 25-year-old student from Srinagar, the main city in the region.
Sitara Nazir, a 55-year-old supporter of the National Conference from central Ganderbal district, says she feels hopeless in the new political order.
These are the same politicians who did injustice to us for all these years. I have never had any hope from them.
“Siding with them made us vulnerable in our own homes, we were even ready to take that risk thinking our kids might get jobs and we might see some kind of hope. Today we are totally hopeless and will never support them again,” she said.
Kashmir experts fear the hardline policies adopted by the government may prove to be “counterproductive”.
“At the moment, the situation is pretty bleak,” said Radha Kumar, a retired professor and one of the three interlocutors appointed by the Indian government for dialogue with Kashmiri citizens and groups in 2010-2011.
“If you don’t have a legitimate political activity then how does a democracy function? In effect, that means no democracy. It is a very alarming situation,” she told Al Jazeera by phone.
“It is a very dangerous act, choking political spaces only leads to radicalisation,” she said. ‘We may see more radical expressions and more militancy. All the measures that the government has taken are guaranteed to be counterproductive.”
The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has defended the government move to suspend the state assembly, saying it “shut the shops” of Kashmiri politicians.
“What have they done for people? They only worked to uplift themselves,” said Ashok Koul, the general secretary and the spokesperson of the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir.
New Delhi’s crackdown last year, however, has now placed a large crowd of its loyalist politicians in a conundrum. The rebels continue to hunt them while the state which had promised them security and space has shunned them.
In many ways, they seem to be caught in an impossible dilemma.
“What they (New Delhi) did, I don’t see any future in politics. What will we tell people if we go to them? They have eroded and ended everything here,” Itoo said.